There was a time when Jackie Johansen would run off to Texas to visit her grandmother, typically after life had delivered a rough blow.

As likely as not, her grandmother would say, “Where are you going dancing tonight? Because you can’t change your life by sitting on the couch.” 

Scatter cornmeal on the hardwood floor — Johansen is going dancing.

At age 45, after 16 years in Greater Des Moines running her own marketing business and working in a range of roles in commercial real estate, Johansen recently formed Shattered Glass Development.

Don’t let the dancing metaphor fool you into thinking that Johansen has been slouching on the couch, waiting for her life to change. Follow her career and listen to her tell just a little of the story of her life and you understand she has been left little time to dawdle.

Johansen describes herself as a connector — and many of her professional roles have been in that capacity, connecting the dots of real estate transactions, finding business opportunities for a range of employers. It’s an apt description. You can also count “research nerd” (she is extraordinarily curious and inquisitive) and caregiver. Some might also call her fearless.

“I wish I could bottle her resilience, fortitude and steely determination,” said Michele Stevens, senior vice president for commercial real estate at Central Bank.

All are characteristics that will roll into Shattered Glass Development. Johansen was a director for nearly two years for Thiele Geotech Inc. as the Omaha-based firm expanded operations in Greater Des Moines. Prior to that she worked in a variety of roles for R&R Realty.  

As you might suspect from the name, Shattered Glass is a company with a purpose that ranges beyond development, acquisition and brokerage of real estate, though all of those elements factor into the business plan.

“Part of the vision and mission of the company is to encourage and support women in shattering the glass ceiling in commercial real estate companies and to gender-balance their board of directors and executive teams,” Johansen said. “The other side of that dual purpose is the creative process of repurposing an existing building, where you physically shatter the glass, to bring new life and energy to the space, allowing customers, tenants, investors and staff to enjoy the reimagining of that building for a use more relevant and in demand in today’s times.”

A path to ‘Shattered Glass’

As a woman, launching a business in the real estate and development game takes a leap of faith. Johansen is not entering the field completely unprepared. At Thiele Geotech, she learned about the roles of architecture and engineering in real estate development. She said she picked up another “partial education” while at R&R Realty, where she learned how deals were financed and put together.

“I was just being a sponge,” she said. “Over the last year, I became passionate about doing some of my own development.” She already had several years to develop marketing savvy and was the founder of Amaze Business Solutions Inc., which operated from 2003 to 2013.

“I made it through the recession, sold the business and was recruited by R&R; I fell in love with commercial real estate.”

She fell in love with the industry, warts and all.

What she discovered was that there were few opportunities for women to invest in commercial real estate or to be invited into deals.

“I want to bring women into the game, as developers and investors,” Johansen said.

She pointed out that young male brokers often get their start by being offered a small role in commercial estate deals and walking away with commissions of 2 to 5 percent.

“Women were not being brought into those low percentage deals,” Johansen said.

Two reasons could be that women are more conservative with money and are less tolerant of risk, she said. 

As a rule, women might be involved in a real estate investment trust or mutual fund, “but that project down the street, we don’t have an investment in it.”

As a member of Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW) Iowa, where she was president in 2015, she is part of a national network of women and a few men who are focused on advancing women in the industry and providing connections that can further their careers.

CREW is as much a mentoring organization as anything else, and it is those kinds of role models that typically aren’t available for women.

According to CREW studies, women make up about 35 percent of the commercial real estate workforce in the United States, yet they are 54 percent less likely than men to have a sponsor. Unlike men, most women don’t believe they will make it to the executive suite in a commercial real estate firm.

And there is a pay gap of about 23 percent, with the median annual compensation for women at $115,000, compared with $150,000 for men.

In the Certified Commercial Investment Member Institute, the leading certification organization for commercial real estate professionals, about 13 percent of the 550 people who carry the CCIM certification are women.

“I’m walking the walk and talking the talk about gender equality,” Johansen said. “It’s not just about having women at the decision-making table, but about having equality of women and men and overall diversity.”  

She is creating an advisory board for Shattered Glass Development, and part of that process is “being intentional about having the board gender-balanced as well as strongly diversified in race, age and sexual orientation.”

In the several weeks that Shattered Glass Development has operated, Johansen has discovered some “amazing projects that are in the pipeline, but need equity to get a jump-start.”

“I see this being a big part of my role in the startup phase,” she said. “Women, minorities, young professionals and many others certainly have the capacity to be investing in commercial real estate, but so many don’t know where to start.”

Johansen has an investment partner in Shattered Glass Development.

Putting on the ‘big-girl’ pants

As for role models, they have been with her most of her life. Her mother, her grandmother, her stepfather stand out. She is learning lessons every day from her teenage sons.

Her mother, Katie, grew up in Texas in a family Johansen described as a “very poor but happy family.” Johansen’s grandfather was a fighter pilot in World War I and went missing over the Burma Hump. He eventually was found, but while he was missing, her “strong and fierce grandmother, Lora Covington, led the family, and when money was too tight she broke every rule to get a nursing degree at a time that married women weren’t allowed into the nursing schools,” Johansen said.

During a high school home economics class, a teacher noticed that a skirt Katie had sewn hung crooked when she wore it, but had a straight seam when it was draped on a table. That led to the discovery that the young girl had a severe S-curve in her spine, a condition that would persist over her lifetime and eventually lead to a caregiver role for Johansen.

Johansen’s mother left home as soon as she graduated from high school, met a young boy, fell in love and moved to Utah. After two daughters were born, she realized she was in an unhealthy marriage and returned with the girls to Texas. Johansen said she met her biological father when she was 16. “He is not who I call Dad,” she said.

Her mother wound up working in the insurance industry, and for several years Johansen and her sister were raised by their grandmother.

Katie fell in love again and married Michael O’Connor, the man Johansen calls her dad.

“When I was 7, he legally adopted my sister and I, and we became a traditional blended family,” Johansen said.

In the early 1980s, Johansen’s mother had surgery to repair her spine and the family moved to Iowa City, where Michael O’Connor worked for the Veterans Administration hospital.

Johansen cared for her mother during a two-year recovery from the spinal surgery.

In the late 1980s, the O’Connors were divorced and Katie launched a career in retail management, working first at the outlet mall near Williamsburg, Iowa, then in Pennsylvania and Chicago. 

“In all that time, the lifting of heavy boxes and the normal wear and tear of life caught up to her and she began to have intolerable pain from her scoliosis. After a second, failed surgery she was officially disabled and had to leave her beloved career,” Johansen said.

In 2002, Katie O’Connor moved to Iowa and Johansen became her caregiver. Johansen also became a caregiver from afar for Michael O’Connor after he was diagnosed with a form of leukemia.

“You can see, in all the women in my family, that when times get tough, we put on our big-girl pants and we do what has to be done to take the next step toward progress,” Johansen said. “Sometimes that is what is best for your kids, sometimes what’s right for your parents, and sometimes that is what’s right for those in the world that need our care, even if we don’t know them or haven’t even met them.

“I’ve been through some rough times in my life and also had great times of learning and enlightenment. I’ve been hired and I’ve been fired. I lost my daughter who died from complications of premature birth and I have two amazing sons that I learn from daily. I’ve had the pleasure to be caregiver for Mom on a daily basis and for my dad in a different way from afar, and I can’t wait to see what’s around the next corner.

“In the end, I look at my days and my life a little bit differently than most.”

Back to business

On the business side, Johansen sees a need for workforce housing and affordable independent senior living. 

She also plans to find development projects that can benefit from opportunity funds or zones, creatures of the 2017 federal tax reform legislation that provide federal tax relief for investments in low-income census tracts. There are two in Des Moines that center on the Drake University area and another 60 across the state. The investments can dilute or eliminate some capital gains taxes and are intended to underwrite economic development.

Johansen said the opportunity zones — where the opportunity funds are invested — would be  primarily in smaller towns that are hard-pressed to attract developers and builders.

In other words, she is looking for areas of need and searching for ways to help them.

As her mother would often say, “If you stay where you are, doing what you are doing, who are you helping?”

Stevens, at Central Bank, sees it this way: “She will move the needle on women investing in commercial real estate, help elevate women’s careers in commercial real estate, and empower young women to see their unlimited future potential.”